New technology gives new tools “to those who want to do harm”, warns EU’s counter-terrorism chief

Ilka Salmi is the number one man in the European Union when it comes to the fight against terrorism. He recently assumed the role of coordinating member states’ response to the security threats facing the bloc today. His appointment comes at a time when right-wing extremism is on the rise and online propaganda is a growing concern. Just some of the issues we discussed with him, at the European Council, in Brussels.

Pedro Sacadora, euronews: First of all, we just started a new year. In 2022, how do you define terrorism?

Ilka Salmi, European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator: I would say that we still have to remember that terrorism exists. If we take into account, for example, radical Islamic or jihadist views, the ideology still exists, even if the caliphate is defeated in Syria. And we have to be prepared for that.

Pedro Sacadora, euronews: You’re taking on this role at a time when, in a way, terrorism seems to have faded and is a bit low on the agenda. Has the threat just slipped off the political agenda?

Ilka Salmi, European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator: Unfortunately, the threat of terrorism is constantly present. We have to say it’s partial…maybe high. We can’t really say it’s completely gone. Of course, issues such as – especially from a European point of view – may have the impact of the pandemic. I mean, people don’t move around as freely as they used to. One thing I would probably also like to highlight, which of course is a good thing, is flexibility.

We have seen, in Europe, small terrorist attacks, very unfortunate attacks, where lives have been lost. However, the communities have already managed to recover.

Pedro Sacadora, euronews: What do you think is the current situation when we talk about terrorist threats in Europe and pressing issues?

Ilka Salmi, European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator: I would basically say two things… actually three things. First, jihadism or the threat of radical Islam persists. Second, we have already seen right-wing extremism, especially violent white-right extremism, become more prominent in Europe. And then the third issue, of course, is technology development. New technology also plays a role in spreading hate speech or terrorist content online.

Pedro Sacadora, euronews: In the past, many European citizens joined organizations linked to terrorism. In your opinion, is Europe still attractive to these organizations to recruit people? And what could be the root causes of such recruitment?

Ilka Salmi, European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator: Well, what we saw, let’s say back in 2012, 2013, 2014, in particular, or in 2015 related to the crisis in Syria and the formation of ISIS or ISIS in those days, the situation really tempted some Europeans to leave and join the ranks of those terrorist organizations. In theory, it still somehow exists. We have seen developments in Afghanistan. It is definitely one question we will follow.

Pedro Sacadora, euronews: In the last quarter, immigration again became a big topic on the agenda. Do you think there is a link, as some argue, between immigration and terrorism or is this not the case at all?

Ilka Salmi, European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator: Drawing a line – you know – a kind of direct line between immigration and terrorism is far from reality. At the same time, having said that, we have to bear in mind that if there is a large movement of people around the world, terrorist organizations may try to use that to their advantage and try to infiltrate the individuals in it.

Pedro Sacadora, euronews: We are in Brussels, a city that has been affected by terrorism in the past. In your view, what are the priorities for making Europe a safer place?

Ilka Salmi, European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator: We have to make sure that the balance between issues like privacy, on the one hand, and security, on the other, will be covered, so we make sure that our legislation allows our law enforcement agencies to operate efficiently, but at the same time make sure that new technology is available to these agencies.

Pedro Sacadora, euronews: Move to a different topic. On the pandemic, which is also a pressing issue, a recent Europol report referring to 2020, said that terrorist-related organizations are taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to exacerbate hate speech, hate and online propaganda in this direction. What is being done to combat this and address this potentially bigger problem in the future?

Ilka Salmi, European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator: It is already time to face these challenges. The so-called legalization of terrorist content online will go into effect. This is European legislation, where the bottom line is that service providers and social media platforms are obligated to remove terrorist content, which they see online… I mean, based on reports from member states and authorities, also it goes through Europol. So within an hour, this type of information or message should be removed. And I think that’s a very, very good development over the past years where we’ve been able to pass this kind of legislation, which is now going to come into effect next summer.

Pedro Sacadora, euronews: These days, we also see a lot of anti-vaccination talk online, in the context of a pandemic. Do you consider this likely to be used by right-wing extremists to degrade and thus gain more followers?

Ilka Salmi, European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator: I don’t see that we would describe it as terrorism at the present time. Having said that, of course, there has been some concern that marginal parts of those who are staunchly opposed might once again be radicalized by it and might seek alliances with different groups, such as violent right-wing extremism, for example. But for now, we still have to keep in mind that freedom of speech and expression still exists and the right to demonstrate.

Pedro Sacadora, euronews: With the development of technology, terrorism seems to evolve. How do we deal with all this?

Ilka Salmi, European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator: First of all, of course, we have to put a lot of effort into preventive work, trying to make sure that people don’t get radicalized, and they don’t get these opinions, especially when you’re talking about Europe, and of course, globally we will. Second, we have to make sure that law enforcement agencies and security authorities have (a) adequate resources and (b) a legal framework within which they can operate.

Pedro Sacadora, euronews: Is the Internet the weapon of choice for the future and how will you deal, in this sense, with the fight against cyber terrorism?

Ilka Salmi, European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator: I totally think that’s really the way forward. Of course it will not replace what will happen in the real world. Because this is where, unfortunately, all terrorist incidents will have a psychological impact. But at the same time, the new technology, considering that it is very useful for you and me, at the same time, also provides new tools for those who want to do harm. This is exactly why it is necessary to ensure that we keep pace with technological developments.

Pedro Sacadora, euronews: In your view, is there some kind of one-size-fits-all, pan-European approach that could be applied?

Ilka Salmi, European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator: If we discuss the threat, it certainly varies between EU member states or the different countries in Europe. So, in this sense, we probably can’t talk about a single kind of monistic approach to this question.

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